Mexican dairy workers in vermont benjamin g. Jastrzembski dartmouth college


Download 350.3 Kb.
Size350.3 Kb.
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9


Jake was about thirty, an Anglo raised on a Vermont dairy who worked occasionally for George O’Reilly. He was a big guy who frowned continuously as he walked quickly around the barn and farmyard. Whenever I spoke with him, his eyeballs ignored me and scanned the barn, looking for some chore that needed attending to. George complimented him for his work ethic, saying he was one of the few people who worked as hard as he did.

He is a mala persona, a bad person, the workers told me. We watched Jake from the kitchen window of the farmhouse as he strode from one dilapidated tractor to another one afternoon, apparently trying to fix something. He is chocante, bad-tempered, they explained. Juan said he had seen Jake throw a calf over his head in anger. He had worried George would blame him for the injury, but the patrón was aware of Jake’s temper too. “[Jake] doesn’t know how to handle [the Mexicans] at all. He treats them like he would a white guy,” explained George. “You can’t keep yelling and screaming at them, because that don’t work. ”

At the end of the milking shift one morning in August, Jake apparently grabbed tiny Emilio by the nape of his neck and dragged him out of the milking barn. Emilio told me he had returned to milk a cow out more thoroughly when Jake grabbed him. Jake said that he was only trying to hurry Emilio up and finish the milking, since they were behind schedule. George thought Jake had dragged Emilio across the barn because the silo unloader was jammed. When I asked George and Kathryn about the incident, Kathryn told her husband that Emilio should never be touched again, but soon after Emilio left for another dairy anyway out of his frustration with Jake.

“It’s stupid, dragging someone around,” George said.

“He dragged someone around?” Kathryn, asked her husband, unaware of what had happened.

“You know, running him down to the silo room and all that horseshit,” George explained. “If they fucked up the silo, I know it’s a pain in the ass, but you just got to kind of straighten it out and work with them. [Jake] thinks they are doing it on purpose. They are not doing it on purpose, they just do not understand how to run it.”

“He can never touch him again, you must tell him that,” Kathryn said sternly. “He is not to do that again.”

“I know, ma.”

“because that’s bad.” Kathryn continued.

“That’s why I’m trying to work with [Jake], to get everything squared away.”

Jake chose to abuse Emilio in part because Emilio could not easily defend himself. Emilio lacked the language to clearly tell George what had happened, and he would not approach the police because of his legal status. As George explained, Mexicans are abused because they are exploitable: “some of [the farmers] are just no good no matter who they [the workers] are, and who’s working for them. But they can take more advantage of the Mexicans, so they do.” Much of the mistreatment of Mexicans on the dairies is nativist discrimination because patrones and other Anglo workers abuse migrants specifically because of their exploitable status as foreign braceros.

Nativism on the dairies is most overt when patrones coerce migrants by invoking their unauthorized status and threatening to “call immigration.” Juan told me that a friend who had stayed at the O’Reilly farm claimed he worked on a dairy for several months without pay for fear that the patrón would call immigration: “A lot of patrones are rough with their workers. A friend of mine told me that he came to work a while with an American, a patrón. He stayed for a while, working, but he didn’t pay him… he said that if he left, he would call immigration, that it would be better if he just stayed and worked. He still didn’t pay him. He worked for three months for free, and he would have called immigration if he moved from that farm. [My friend] was only trying to escape… He came here and told me this, he came looking for work… eight months ago.” Chris Urban supported Juan’s statement, explaining that a few farms were notorious for treating their workers poorly: “These farms have a high turnover rate, poor housing, low pay, and you can imagine the rest. There are definitely incidents where the Mexican worker has worked for two weeks, and supposedly the check comes every two weeks, and the Mexican worker has not been paid.” One reitero named Samuel further echoed these opinions.xxiii Samuel thought that the majority of patrones were muy buena gente, very good people, but a minority of farmers did abuse workers because “they don’t like the people, but like their work.”

Back on the O’Reilly farm, I took my cues from Juan and Emilio’s stories and avoided Jake. My heart would quicken whenever I saw him walking swiftly around the barn. I presumed he was simply a violent person with nativist attitudes, but when I struck up a conversation with him one day when George was away from the barn, my attitude towards him was challenged.

Jake told me that he understood Emilio, Juan, and Miguel came to Vermont to support their families. Despite the recent fight with Emilio, he said that the Mexican workers had initiative: “I’ve got faith in them. If I can do it, they sure as hell can do it.”

Reflecting on his own personality, Jake said, “I’ve always been [an asshole], and I always will be one. If someone calls me an asshole, it’s a compliment.” I translated some of what Jake told me to Emilio as he milked the cows. I tried to explain that Jake was not a bad person, just that he had a different way of interacting with people than Emilio did. I saw Emilio’s disbelief in his curt nods; he suspected I was double-crossing him.

“Oh, that’s another thing,” Jake told me as I spoke to Emilio in Spanish. “Can you tell them not to call me patrón, señor, or mister? That's for George. I’ve got a name, Jake—just like I don’t call them Mexicans, but Emilio and Juan.” Despite his hot temper, it seemed that Jake—at least intellectually—recognized Emilio, Juan, and Miguel as individuals rather than anonymous braceros.

The conversation with Jake illustrates the ambiguity of the nativism I observed on dairies. Anglos certainly reduced Mexicans into braceros through nativist discrimination, but—at least at the O’Reilly dairy—they expressed their respect for Mexican workers both in words and in actions. The O’Reillys helped their workers get doctor’s appointments, send money to Mexico, and get passports from the Mexican consulate. As Chris Urban articulated, the farmers might wish workers did not have to live in hiding, but on the other hand, they benefited from their vulnerability: “I think the farmers would like the workers to be more free and to live in an environment that is not a constant climate of fear. At the same time, it is nice to have dependable workers trapped on the farm that the farmers can exercise control over.”


When Miguel first arrived at the O’Reilly farm in August from another dairy in Vermont, he took the job because the reitera told him that the O’Reillys would pay him by the hour. Somehow, his exact pay rate was never communicated the day he arrived on the farm. Since George and Kathryn speak only limited Spanish, there was no way to communicate the rate of pay. The result was that at almost a week later, when I first spoke with him, Miguel got up at 5 a.m. everyday to kneel in mierda and milk cows, and he had no idea how much he was getting paid for it. The lack of a shared language between Mexican migrants and Anglo Vermonters is the final factor that supports the argument that Mexican migrants are reduced to disposable and exploitable braceros. The language barrier limits migrants to manual labor because patrones cannot train them to do more technical work. In addition, miscommunications lead to frustration that occasionally boils over into nativist anger.

Due to the language barrier, George had difficulty teaching his Mexican workers to use machinery, limiting their ability to shoulder responsibility in the barn. One morning at the O’Reilly farmhouse, I woke up on the air mattress to find Juan shoving the portable phone into my face (I had slept through the morning shift on this particular day). Juan told me to call the patróna and tell her he broke the feeding cart. It was 6:00 a.m., and Kathryn groaned over the phone, understandably perturbed. She asked me to tell Juan to start feeding the cows by hand. It took several hours to fix the feeding cart, which Juan had broken by failing to clean it out when it became jammed. In the meantime, Juan had to feed the cows with a wheelbarrow, wasting precious time. George had no way to explain to Juan how to avoid the problem by properly cleaning the feeding cart. On the day I took Juan to the dentist, Miguel had to do the mid-morning cow feeding, but preferred to do it by hand instead of risking damaging the cart. Later, Kathryn told me, “Miguel had a heart attack when we told him he had to run the feed cart! He’d rather do it with the wheelbarrow…” The language barrier on the dairies restricts the role of Mexicans to braceros because it is more difficult for them to learn how to operate equipment.

The difficulties communicating on the dairies, often foments mistrust and tension. In June 2007, a motor that runs the refrigerated milk tank broke at the O’Reilly dairy, costing George $940 for a replacement. George rolled his eyes when I told him Juan said the motor had spontaneously died. He believed one of the workers broke the motor in an effort to “sabotage” the others and protect his own job. With no way to account for such mistakes with verbal communication, migrants and patrones often assume the worst of one another.

Juan told me about a separate incident when the patrón became angry because Juan could not communicate the problem with a motor that drops hay from the silo into the feeding cart: “He told me to climb up and check it, and I climbed up, checked it, and the motor had lots of hay inside of it… the belt was broken. He told me to come down and explain what was wrong… well, I wanted to explain that it was the motor, that it had a lot of junk in it, but he did not understand me… He was sick so he could not climb up and check it… he got really angry.” Juan admitted that he sometimes even pretended to understand what George said, just to avoid conflict: “He gets angry when we don’t understand him. What happens is he asks you if you understand, and you say no, and he gets angry. You have to say, ‘yes, I understand,’ even if you don’t understand him.”

Anglos and Mexicans sometimes expressed their frustration with the language barrier through nativist insults. Unlike the instructions about running equipment, the meaning of insults seemed to transcend the language barrier. Another worker expressed a similar sentiment, explaining how two Anglos insulted him: “A problem you have at this farm is with the patrón and the foremen. The two talk about the Mexicans. ‘Fuckin’ Mexican, he hit a cow,’ [they say.] You understand them a little. Tienes que aguantar [You have to beart it]; there is no other option. The work is theirs, and you cannot yell at them, because they will fire you.” Only once did I witness the nativist insults these workers described. “You know,” one farmer told me the minute I stepped into his milking barn, “the Mexicans don’t have so much between the ears.” Pedro, a worker on an Addison County dairy I never visited, described to me the insults he suffered from one Anglo worker: “He treats us bad, any little thing that you do not understand, and he reprimands you, he insults you, he says bad things, things he should not say. You understand the words he says, but you just have to keep working, because we do not have papers, we do not speak English, we do not have the power to say a word.”

Most Mexican dairy workers in Vermont speak little English, and most patrones speak little Spanish. The language barrier limits the work of migrants to the most labor-intensive, least-skilled bracero jobs on the dairies, such as cleaning the stalls and milking the cows. The inability to communicate stresses the patience of everyone on the dairy, exacerbating a tension that sometimes blows-up in to nativist insults.

Unauthorized legal status, nativism, and the language barrier reduce Mexican dairy workers in Addison County into braceros. Legal status renders unauthorized migrants disposable and forces them to live in fear and isolation. The effect of unauthorized status is particularly debilitating in Vermont, where nativist prejudice places them outside of the imagined community and discrimination increases their risk of deportation. The nativist attitudes of some Anglo dairy workers also exacerbate the challenges migrants face on the dairies themselves. The language barrier limits migrants to the most labor-intensive, unskilled work on the farm, and precipitates interethnic tension between migrants and the patrones. These circumstances show that young migrants like Juan, Emilio, and Miguel are here in Vermont primarily as braceros. This chapter presents the red thread of this thesis—that young Mexicans in Vermont like Juan, Emilio, and Miguel are made exploitable and disposable primarily through the structural condition of their legal status. Unauthorized Mexicans in the 21st century are the new braceros.

Status as braceros diminishes the power migrants have in relation to Anglos. As Juan explained to me in one of our last interviews: “[The patrones] have the power. If they want you have to go, you go. If they want you stay, you work… To them, they are important. They are the ones who make the orders around here. You have to be at their feet.” The following chapters will examine how migrants confront the daily challenges that emerge due to their status as exploitable and disposable braceros.

When I walk in the house, I feel like I am in Mexico.
When I first received permission from Kathryn O’Reilly to visit their farm and interview some of her workers, she gave me the number for the farmhouse where the migrants live. When I finally worked up to the nerve to call the number and ask for an interview in my rusty Spanish, the line was busy. A few minutes later, I tried again—still busy. Not until later that night did the phone ring.

Bueno?” Daniel answered. I told him I was a student doing a research project, and asked if I could come by and speak with him about his experience living in Vermont. Laughing at my broken Spanish, he invited me to stop by. As I became more involved with the O’Reilly farm over the coming months, I called the farmhouse frequently and became accustomed to hearing the busy signal; the phone at the O’Reilly farmhouse was in constant use.

The telephone provides a critical means of communication between Mexican dairy workers in Vermont and their family and friends across the United States and Mexico. Telephone communication is one of the most important tools migrants use to counter the challenges they face from unauthorized status, nativism, and the language barrier. The telephone is specifically a translocal coping strategy, as migrants are usually speaking with kin in Mexico or in other parts of the United States outside of the local sphere of Vermont. This chapter will examine telephone use, access of television and music media, and economic remittances as translocal coping strategies to the challenges of living on an isolated Vermont dairy. Overall, the purpose of the second half of this thesis, which include chapters four, five, and six, is to provide a deeper description of the lives of Mexican dairy workers in Vermont while demonstrating that migrants retain some agency despite their bracero status.

Ethnographers have long observed that Mexican migrants in the United States maintain close ties with Mexico by traveling back and forth across the border, staying in communication with their families, participating in Mexican politics, helping their kin migrate, and sending money home through remittances (Chavez 1992; De Genova 2005; Levitt and Nyberg-Sørenson 2004: 4; Rouse 1991 [Citation must be further expanded]). Mexican migrants who are bonded together by kinship, an indigenous ethnicity, a hometown, or a home state also settle in the same areas, reterritorializing communities rooted in Mexico within the United States (Chavez 1992; Fox and Rivera-Salgado 2004; Roberts, et al. 1999; Rouse 1991 [citation must be further expanded]).

Transnational theories of migration attempts to describe these circular qualities of human movement and interaction that have been increasingly observed not only for Mexican migrants in the United States, but also in many settings across the world (cf. Peleikis 2000 for Lebanese in Ivory Coast, Morawska 2001 for Poles in Germany, and Rana in press; n.d. for South Asians in the Persian Gulf region). Rationalizing these observations of contemporary migration necessitated reconsidering older models that assume migration between nation-states involves permanent immigration and incorporation of the migrant into the receiving nation-state (Glick Schiller, et al. 1992: 16).

First articulated in the early 1990s, transnational migration theories argue that the process of migration generates transnational social fields in which migrants and non-migrants are connected to each other via social relationships despite their geographic dispersion across nation-states (Glick Schiller, et al. 1992: 1).xxiv A social field describes the set of social relationships between people that give rise to a shared sense of belonging: “[it defines] a set of multiple interlocking networks of social relationships through which ideas, practices, and resources are unequally exchanged, organized, and transformed” (Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004: 1009).xxv Transnational social fields are deterritorialized because they are not predicated upon a single, bounded geographic area, such as a village in Tabasco (Basch, et al. 1994). At the same time, transnational social fields are not free floating networks of individuals unbounded to geographic locations. Transnational social fields are reterritorialized in multiple locations, such as the village in Tabasco; Warner Robins, Georgia; and Addison County, Vermont (Appadurai 2003: 345; Inda and Rosaldo 2002: 12-15).

Transnational migration theories break with the assumption that people conduct their lives exclusively within geographically and culturally discreet, modern, nation-states. Contemporary migrants contest the borders, homogeneity, and sovereignty of national imagined communities by forging social fields across nation-states. Rouse (1991: 8) succinctly voices the rupture with past ideas of unilateral immigration that transnational theories brought forth: “Suddenly, the comfortable modern imagery of nation-states and national languages, of coherent communities and consistent subjectivities, of dominant centers and distant margins no longer seems adequate.” Searching for a way to conceptualize the experience of migrants they studied, the anthropologists who developed transnational theories rejected the “methodological nationalism” that the nation-state is the most accurate or natural “container” of social life (Levitt and Nyberg-Sørenson 2004: 3; Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2003).xxvi

Despite the growing global mobility of goods, capital, and people, nation-states and borders are still relevant, and in some ways, growing in their strength. For example, even as Mexico and the United States have integrated their economies with NAFTA, the U.S. government has invested vast resources to demarcate itself from Mexico by increasing border security and enforcing immigration law. While rejecting the nation-state as the sole unit of social analysis, transnational migration theories recognize that human movement occurs within the structural conditions of nation-states: “Transnational migrants exist, interact, are given and assert their identities, and seek or exercise legal and social rights within national structures that monopolize power and foster ideologies of identity” (Glick Schiller, et al. 1992: 15). One consequential structural condition of the nation-state for Mexican migrants is the demeaning effects of perceived or actual unauthorized legal status.

Although transnational migration is not an exclusively 20th and 21st century phenomena, new technologies that facilitate communication and transportation are key in maintaining the long-distant ties typical of transnational social fields (Goldberg 1992; Kearney 1995: 232-233; Levitt 1998: 928; Rouse 1991: 13). Technology allows Mexican dairy workers in Vermont to quickly and inexpensively call home, send money, or return to Mexico.

Belonging in a transnational social field— just as being in any community,—involves both privileges and responsibilities.xxvii For example, Juan received assistance from kin when he first arrived to Georgia from Tabasco, but he is also expected to reciprocate by hosting new migrants in Vermont.

Another key element of transnational social fields is the importance of migration not only on migrants but also on non-migrants (Levitt and Nyberg-Sørensen 2004: 2). Migration affects non-migrants who stay in Mexico but are embedded in social fields that include dairy workers in Vermont. Non-migrants receive and spend remittances, raise migrants’ children, and are affected by the ideas, behaviors, and identities from the United States that migrants share with them (Levitt 1998).

Identities are transformed by transnational migration, but not just via assimilation as traditionally conceptualized. As migrants develop new relationships in the receiving nation-state, both migrants and their non-migrant kin become embedded in new social fields and consequently develop new conceptions of their own identities (Glick Schiller, et al. 1992: 11-12). For example, Kearney (1995) and Rivera-Salgado (1999) and have argued that migration of Mixtecs has strengthened and transformed indigenous identity for both migrants in California and non-migrants in Oaxaca. Migration also transforms conventions surrounding the appropriate roles for men and women and the social relations between them (Levitt 1998: 934). Mexican migrants in Georgia said that “en el norte la mujer manda” [in the north, women are in charge] because access to transportation, the ability to resist domestic violence through police intervention, greater access to family planning, and opportunities to earn a wage with work outside the home increase their power in their relationships with men (Hirsch 1999: 1340-1344).

In this thesis, I describe the social fields of Mexican migrant dairy workers as translocal rather than transnational. I refer to social fields as translocal because this adjective does not risk glossing over the important social relations between migrant dairy workers in Vermont and migrants in other parts of the United States. In my view, transnational implies a bipolar social field territorialized in only two geographic locations, each in a different nation-state. Translocal better fits the observations that multipolar social fields in which Vermont migrants are embedded is territorialized in multiple geographic locations in multiple nation-states. For example, Juan and many other migrants in Addison County are embedded in a translocal social field territorialized in Georgia, Vermont, and Tabasco. The situation of Vermont migrants necessitates a term such as translocal that describes how migrants and non-migrants living in multiple locations in the same or different nation-states produce social fields.

Chapters four, five and six examine how migrants cope with their reduction into braceros in the context of transnational theories of migration. I classify coping strategies as connecting individuals in the translocal, local, or superlocal spheres. This chapter examines migrant coping strategies in the translocal sphere. Adaptations described in this chapter transcend the physical geography of Vermont by connecting migrants through social fields to people in Mexico or other parts of the United States, as well as to transnational media. Chapter five contends that the role of local sphere coping strategies is minimal, due to isolation and nativism of Addison County. Coping strategies of the superlocal sphere discussed in chapter six involve only a single dairy and occur among Mexican migrants and Anglo Vermonters who work together everyday.

I separate coping strategies into these geographic spheres to facilitate analysis, but, in reality, many of the strategies are simultaneously superlocal, local, and translocal. For example, I consider going to church to be a local phenomenon because I focus on how it brings together Mexicans from across Vermont, but Christianity is a transnational tradition. It is useful to analytically separate translocal, local, and superlocal, but these spheres are blurred in the actual lives of migrants.

Share with your friends:
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page